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Millard Fillmore: The President Who Gambled on Slavery – and Lost

Fillmore thought compromise on the slavery issue was politically expedient, and it cost him the White House.

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Millard Fillmore (1800 – 1874) was the 13th president of the United States and the last to hold office that was not to be affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican parties. Born on Jan. 7, 1800 in Locke township, New York, he was delivered in a log cabin to a poor family. At the age of 15, he became an apprentice to a wool carder and received very little education until he was 18 when he was able to get six consecutive months of schooling. Later he started working in a law office, and in 1823, he was admitted to the bar. Three years later, in 1826, he married his first wife, Abigail Powers.

In 1828, Fillmore began his political career as a member of the Democratic and Libertarian Anti-Masonic Movement and Anti-Masonic Party. In 1834, he transferred over to the Whig Party and became recognized as an outstanding leader of the party’s northern wing.

Fillmore continued his career in politics by serving three terms in the New York state assembly from 1829 to 1832. He was elected to Congress twice, 1833-35 and 1837-43. While serving that seat, he became a follower of Senator Henry Clay, who was instrumental in the outcome of some presidential elections. In 1844, Fillmore lost the New York gubernational election, but was elected the first state comptroller three years later.

In 1848, at the national Whig convention, Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor was nominated as president with Fillmore on the ticket as vice. Taylor was adamant about ending slavery, but his term was cut short when he died just months into his presidency. Fillmore became chief executive in 1850 after the president’s death.

Because the Whig Party had such success at the polls, Fillmore thought a new national party was rising and that they would be able to find a middle ground in terms of slavery. Clay’s Compromise of 1850 was an attempt to appease both the North and the South while finding a way to preserve the Union. The legislation was passed just two months after Taylor’s death and Fillmore strayed from the former president’s desire to end slavery by signing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a provision that required the federal government to aid in the capture and return of runaway slaves to their owners. He publicly announced that, if necessary, he would call upon the military to aid in the enforcement.

While this somewhat appeased the Southerners and was partially responsible for delaying the Civil War for another decade, the move destroyed Fillmore’s political career because of the extreme unpopularity with the North over his support and actions towards the institution of slavery.

In 1852, Fillmore decided to run again for president. He was one of three candidates of the Whig Party in its last national election, which it lost. He tried again in 1856, this time as the candidate of the Know-Nothing Party, also known as the American Party. He finished in third behind Democrat James Buchanan and Republican John C. Fremont.

Fillmore retired to Buffalo after the loss and became a leader in the city’s civic and cultural life. His wife Abigail died in 1853 and he married Caroline Carmichael McIntosh in 1858.

Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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